Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Difference a Year Makes

By Tamara Girardi

I’m excited to write my debut post for Working Stiffs. Thanks to Annette for inviting me.

After attending the PennWriters conference this weekend, I began thinking about how my work has progressed in the last year. I started writing THESE WALLS CAN TALK, a YA paranormal novel in January 2009. Four months later, I pitched it at the PennWriters Conference in Pittsburgh.

The book’s about a 17-year-old ghost hunter named Leia who learns she has a psychic ability known as retrocognition. She can step into rooms and see the history that occurred there, including secrets some would kill to keep hidden.

A few agents at PennWriters requested pages. Two weeks later, I attended the Backspace Conference in New York City. Other agents requested pages.

I thought I was golden.

But then I learned an interesting concept does not equal book sold. Those pages the agents request really matter.

Um, duh?

Here’s the thing I’ve learned: writers query and submit pages way too early. I’m guilty of it. I’ve heard agents chirp about other writers who commit the writing crime.

Let me offer a concession here. Sometimes agents do take on work that isn’t quite ready with the promise the author will work with said agent to revise, revise, revise. However, it’s not common because many agents lack the time for such efforts.

I remember the weeks it took to write THESE WALLS CAN TALK. Yes, it took four weeks, which should be the first clue significant revisions were necessary. I write fast, but the manuscript didn’t honor every element of good novel-writing. The scenes did not link in a cause and effect manner. Some scenes didn’t advance the plot at all (thank you to Nathan Bransford for pointing that out to me so graciously). The characters weren’t always true to themselves and at times behaved rather wishy-washy.

In other words, it wasn’t ready.

But I had worked on it for months. I had done everything I could. It HAD to be READY.

It wasn’t.

The problem was I didn’t know how to fix what I had created. So, I read books on writing, took several online writing classes through PennWriters, participated in workshops and critiques with the Sisters in Crime, and found a really good critique partner.

The knowledge I collected from these sources served as a translator, clarifying the comments many agents had offered me along the way. Sparks of revision ideas soon followed those “Aha” moments. I kept a notebook with me at all times, and when I thought of a way to better connect scenes or to show character traits more consistently, I wrote it in the notebook.

The notebook is now filled with page after page of scribbles that will make the story better.

I wanted the book to be as good as it could be when I submitted it to agents a year ago, but I didn’t have the experience and knowledge to identify the mistakes I was making. That’s the difference a year makes. I can only imagine the tips and skills I’ll pick up in this next year.

If there’s one lesson I’ve learned over all others, it’s DO NOT SUBMIT UNTIL YOUR MANUSCRIPT IS ABSOLUTELY READY. There’s no rush. I know electronic publishing has created a major debate regarding the disappearance of traditional books, but publishing really isn’t going anywhere. Agents want to see the best work you can present to them.

If that takes a month, or two, or six, that’s fine.

Yeah, you’re making them wait. Not the best scenario. But think of the alternative. You have this great opportunity – an agent interested in your concept – but the pages aren’t ready, and instead of an opportunity for when they are ready, you end up with a rejection and a manuscript crying out for revision.

Instead, let your work rest before rushing to send it. Search for a few beta readers. Offer to exchange a critique with another writer nearing submission. You’ll learn as much from identifying what works and doesn’t in that writer’s manuscript as you will from the comments he or she provides you.

Sign up for an online writing class and as you learn, evaluate your manuscript. Is it excellent on all levels? Pick up a writing book like Story by Robert McKee, How to Write a Breakout Novel or Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass, or any others that look appealing to you. Read them actively. Complete the exercises.

Do your scenes, characters, plotlines, twists, and all other tidbits in your book still classify as excellent?

If so, go ahead and send that manuscript off to the agent(s) who requested it.

If not, writing is rewriting.

And rewriting.

And rewriting.

So, time to come clean. Have you ever queried or submitted pages to agents or editors too early? How did it work out?

16 comments:

Annette said...

Welcome to Working Stiffs, Tamara! And thanks for giving a break from posting every week!

The problem for me is the manuscript is NEVER ready. Like Tim pointed out in Thursday's workshop...I'm going to be the author doing a reading from her published book and still stopping to make edits.

On the up-side, let me just say you've obviously nailed one of the harder parts of the process. For me, writing the book is easy. Sort of. Finding a way to make it sound appealing to an agent in just a paragraph or a sentence is the difficult part.

You go, girl!

Alan Orloff said...

Hi Tamara,

Oh yes! I finished a ms and thought it was really good (and I'd gotten pretty good feedback). So I queried it. More than 100 times I queried it. And I got more than 100 rejections! Ouch! One day, I may go back and try to make it *really* good.

Don't give up!

Jennie Bentley said...

Welcome to the Stiffs, Tamara. I have a character in my new series called Tamara Grimaldi. Homicide detective. Just so you know. I almost used the Girardi name in my DIY series, as well, but then I brought in another character whose name was Gerard, and having Gerard and Girardi in the same book became a problem, so Peter became a Cortino instead.

Having an agent/editor request a full or partial manuscript is a HUGE deal. You never know which agent/editor is gonna be 'the one' who really gets what you're trying to do with your book. Therefore, yes, having a product that's as close to perfect as possible is paramount. Most agents don't want to see it again if they've rejected it once, and if you weren't ready, that manuscript has missed out on a chance to impress. Couldn't agree more with your post. Good job. (And no, I've made a lot of mistakes, but that isn't one of them. That's not to say that everyone I queried loved the book or thought it was perfect, but someone did.)

ramona said...

Tamara, a very wise post.

At Pennwriters, one agent said a primary reason she rejects manuscripts is that they are submitted before they are ready. Another said, if she requests major changes and the author returns it in a week, it makes her wonder.

It takes less time to write the first draft, edit that draft, let it sit a while to give yourself some space from it, and go back and look at it fresh, than to write it quickly and waste a lot of time and opportunities getting rejected because you did a rush job. Patience really is a virtue.

Tamara said...

Annette - happy to be here! Yes, Tim touched on this at the conference. Alex Glass did as well. It was the lesson of the conference for me. I've since organized my revision notes into a detailed plan, which I will get to after leaving this comment!

Alan, thanks for the advice, but you don't give up either! I love the manuscripts that are rough and waiting, sitting in a drawer - great material for the future. Give it another look. You may be surprised. Thanks for your comment.

Jennie - looks like you and I were destined to intersect! You've been envisioning my name for some time now - in many different forms. Thanks for your encouragement. Can't wait to hear more about Tamara Grimaldi.

Ramona - fresh perspective is huge. That's great advice. So great to see you at the conference. Thanks for the comment!

Joyce said...

I've definitely made that mistake. After I was dropped by my former agent, I sent out my 2nd manuscript too soon. It was good, but not good enough. I've since revised it at least five times and I'm querying again.

Joyce said...

Tamara, I thought you were going to post your photo with the octopus?

Tamara said...

Ah, Joyce, the Octopus. Yes. I considered it. I think it may be my next post here in two weeks. I have some ideas brewing, but I felt like I needed a bit more distance from the conference before I jump into that experience. As you know it was a bit jarring!

Good luck querying the project this time around!

Tamara said...

Laurissa - thanks for the comment. I'm honored to be a part of your writing pointers collection. When you're ready, I'd really like to read some of your pages.

See you soon!

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Welcome Tamara.

I'd like to edit one line in your words of wisdom.

DO NOT SUBMIT UNTIL YOU ARE ABSOLUTELY READY!

DO NOT SUBMIT UNTIL THE MANUSCRIPT IS ABSOLUTELY READY!

And not just the first three chapters, the entire novel. We've all made that mistake. It's our nature.

Tamara said...

Ah, Wilfred. Good edit. It's what I meant to say, but not what I said.

Thank you, and thank you for the welcome!

M Pax said...

Yes, I submitted to early a year ago. Reworking it now to be ready for my pitches in August. I will do better.

Tamara said...

Good luck with your submissions, M Pax!

PJ said...

Welcome to Working Stiffs, Tamara!

Excellent debut post. And, yep, I sure have submitted too early. I hear / read somewhere that back in the day, agents expected the ms to be 50% ready for submission. Today it's more like 85%. Like Jennie said, it has to be as close to perfect as possible.

Paula Matter

Ayleen said...

Really enjoyed this post, Tamara. Thanks for sharing and for the words of advice.

PatRemick said...

Welcome Tamara -- enjoyed your post!